Google Glass: the definitive road-test

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How much will the next big gadget change our lives? AJ Jacobs knows: he put his on and never looked back

Google Glass may or may not transform the future. But one thing is beyond question: it elicits mighty strong reactions in the present.

The first week I got my tiny new face computer, I wore it to a barbecue and sat down at a table to eat pasta salad. “That is the most annoying thing in the world,” snapped a mother of twins, pointing at my new gadget from across the table.

“I disagree,” I responded.

“No, really. It is.”

“One second,” I said. I tapped the black frames with my finger to turn the device on. “OK, Glass, ‘What is the most annoying thing in the world?’.”

In the mini-screen perched above my right eye, an article popped up. I clicked on it. I scrolled. She waited.“All right, I have a list from The Daily Telegraph with the top 100 most annoying things. There’s people who drive too close to you. Noisy eaters. Rude clerks. No Google Glass.”

She was unconvinced and yammered on about privacy invasion, the failure to embrace real life, the evils of distraction, the usual.

Yet, earlier that same day, several strangers had approached me as if I were a minor celebrity. “Are they as awesome as people say?” “Where can I get the Google Goggles?”  “Mind if I try them on?” (For all the fears of privacy advocates, it was mostly my privacy that was invaded.)

As with coriander and Hillary Clinton, there’s not a lot of middle ground. Google Glass – which will be released for sale some time in 2014 – has become the flashpoint in the war between tech-fearing, Jonathan-Franzen-admiring, our-kids-should-play-with-wooden-blocks types and the self-quantifying, singularity-loving, Cloud-computing-will-save-the-world evangelists.

After much cajoling, Google sold me an early prototype for $1,500. I would be one of 8,000 “Explorers” – a group of engineers, scientists, artists, and journalists allowed to test it out. At the Glass office in New York, I got a crash course on how to connect my Glass to the internet, take video, snap a photo, get directions, search for nearby fast-food restaurants, return emails, make calls, and watch CNN – all without the effort of reaching into my pocket for my smartphone. I was also advised about what I should definitely not do.

So that’s what I would do. My mission: I would push Glass to its limits to give me a glimpse of the real-life utopia and/or dystopia that awaits.

OPERATION: LITERATURE

The first few days are a mix of exhilaration and frustration. One minute I’m marvelling, “Holy crap, this street map moves when I turn my head!” The next I’m having heated arguments with Glass’s voice-recognition feature: “CNN. Not Rihanna. CNN! CNN!” That’s not to mention the added challenge of friends who sneak up behind me and shout inappropriate Google searches to clog my browser’s history.

The tiny screen (roughly three-quarters of an inch by half an inch) takes some getting used to. For a while, I was squinting half the day, but I’ve now learned to adjust. You have to point your eyeballs up and to the right, so you spend a lot of time looking as if you’re trying to do long division in your head.

Glass is designed to display short snippets of text: quick emails such as “See you at Sbarro at 10:00.” Or CNN headline updates, such as LIZARD SUSPECTED OF EATING NEIGHBOUR’S CAT (which I was helpfully informed of at the doctor’s office).

As the Google PR told me, Glass is not meant for poring over 2,000-word articles. Yet what’s the harm in trying? In fact, why not use my Glass to read something even more substantial, like Moby-Dick? Imagine the joy of having a tiny great work of literature in front of your face at all times.

As my wife drives the family to our friend’s house, I ride shotgun, tilt my head back, and dive into some 19th-century fiction. “OK, Glass, Google ‘Moby-Dick full text’,” I say. I find a free file from Princeton University. The problem? The sentences don’t fit on the screen. If I want to finish a line, I have to turn my head to the right, then shift it back to the left. I look like a spectator at Wimbledon or a five-year-old throwing a tantrum. I’m also carsick.

“Can you stop?” my wife asks. “It’s very distracting.”

After a half-hour break, I try again. I find another version of Moby-Dick that fits on the screen. I start to read. It’s both strange and wonderful. The words float against the sky. The text is so close to my eyes, the book feels like it’s inside my brain. I’m in my own secret world, like the kid with the flashlight under the blanket, but without the flashlight or blanket.

I’ve never read Moby-Dick, and the details seem so visceral up close: Queequeg harpooning the breakfast beefsteaks from across the table, or draping his tattooed arm over Ishmael during a forced spooning. And who knew Melville was such a cranky bastard, an early Louis C.K., with his urge to step into the street and start “methodically knocking people’s hats off”?

After 45 minutes, I get an ice-pick headache and have to stop. I later tell some tech-loathing book-world friends, who react with horror – as if reading on an iPad weren’t bad enough. In their honour, I read a long article on my Glass called “35 Arguments Against Google Glass”, which gives me an ironic thrill.

Literature verdict: Briefly fantastic.  Use caution.

OPERATION: TEXAS HOLDEM

One of Glass’s most impressive features is that it can live-stream video from your point of view. Anyone can see the world through your eyes. If you’re at the supermarket facing a baffling array of tomato sauces, just video-call your wife. On her laptop, she can scan the shelf and tell you to get the organic passata. Very useful.

Also useful? Invite some friends over for poker and have your cousin who’s a professional poker player in Vegas secretly observe your cards from his laptop and signal to you how to bet. I have such a cousin. He agreed to the plan.

We spend the day practicing our scheme. On his computer, he can see my cards. On my walnut-sized screen, I can see a teensy version of him holding up handwritten signs, such as FOLD. Or RAISE TEN DOLLARS. Or CALL. I keep my cousin on mute for two reasons: First, I don’t want my fellow cardplayers to hear him. And second, he’s kind of a cocky bastard.

At 8pm on a Thursday, my three unsuspecting friends come to my place. They know I’m testing Glass, but I tell them it’s only for email. I deal. I lift my hand to show my cousin my jack and six. And… the video goes black. I tap the side of my frames furiously to reconnect. We finally do, but 10 seconds later, his image freezes mid-scribble. Dammit!

After losing a bunch of hands, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and call my cousin on my cell. We whisper-argue over who is to blame for the technical snafu.

Back at the table, we get the live stream running again. And he holds up the FOLD sign three hands in a row. Ugh. And then, on an ace-ten, he has me bet $10, then raise $15. It’s much more aggressive than my usual strategy. We win! I get a head-rush. Another hand, he writes, LET’S BLUFF. BET $20.

It’s thrilling, this freedom from choice, the comfort of knowing that I’m playing like a master. Granted, it’s far from a flawless plan. At times, my cousin can’t see my hand, even though I shove my nose right up to the cards. The video is spotty and slow (it’s a prototype, after all), so I spend a lot of time stalling. “Hmm. Let me think.” And, as I mentioned, my cousin has an attitude. CLEAN UP YOUR STACK!! he writes on his whiteboard.

At one point, my nine-year-old son joins the game. He gets a good hand, but my cousin senses mine is better and tells me to raise my son $40, the kid’s life savings. I can’t do it. My cousin writes, PUSSY.

But overall, the plan works surprisingly well. After two hours, I’ve tripled my money to $200, at which point I confess my sin to my friends and give them back their money. They seem more baffled than angry. “So what are you seeing? He’s in that little thing?” The next day, one friend emails to thank me for the night, adding, “despite the fact that I woke up with a somewhat violated feeling that I can’t seem to shake.”

Poker verdict: Delightful. Dangerous.

OPERATION: DICTATION

Three weeks in, class [correction: Glass] and I are getting along better. There are still plenty of annoyances, like accidentally tweeting a photo of a café counter. But I love taking video of my sons without them getting me and I’m rolling “Oh, Dad.” [Correction: without them giving me an eye-rolling “Oh, Dad.”] I’ve successfully Googled the “XYZ affair”, “flank steak against the grain”, and “burrata cheese”.

I’m also getting the hang of the voice-recognition feature. I find Glass prefers in order to perform [correction: Glass prefers a more chipper voice], like I’m a tour guide at a theme park. Not my favourite own [correction: tone], but I adjust.

In fact, I have dictated this entire section of the article. Perhaps most impressive: Glass is no prude. It understands and spells out every naughty word I can think of. And that includes blumpkin. See? Please do not Google that.

Dictation verdict: Lawless [correction: flawless].

OPERATION: MOVIES AND TV

More than 25 years ago, a heavyweight boxer named Mitch Green was arrested for allegedly driving with a working TV mounted on the hood of his car. Prescient.

I don’t plan to drive while watching my Glass, but what if I tried to watch video every moment of the day that I’m not operating heavy machinery? My first plan was to stream a series of back-to-back epic movies on my Glass as I ran my errands and made my calls. Unfortunately, Glass isn’t yet compatible with Netflix.

Instead, I had to settle for 16 hours of YouTube. I watch Ali G while at the shops. I watch a TED talk about bipolar disorder while scrubbing the dishes. While taking my kids to the Museum of Natural History, I creep myself out by watching the “Blurred Lines” video, squinting to make out the world’s tiniest nipples.

Things start to spin out of control. How could they not? It’s my childhood dream come true, this ever-present TV. My wife approaches me in the kitchen. I can see her mouth moving. I tell her: “I’m watching a Richard Pryor clip about the first black president. If it’s important, let me know, and I’ll pause.” She walks away.

I begin trying to improve life. When I’m out for a hike, I see a waterfall. It’s fine. But why not spice things up with a video of Angel Falls in Venezuela? Now, that’s spectacular. I have lunch at a local restaurant, but why not search for video of the inside of Le Bernardin? Sadly, I couldn’t find it. But I’m sure I will soon.

I’m worried for reality.

Movies-and-TV verdict: Incomplete. But promising.

OPERATION: OUTSOURCED CONSCIENCE 

This brings up the distraction issue. Many say Glass is taking our ADHD culture to its logical, horrible conclusion. Google argues that Glass will make you less distracted. Its position is that you don’t have to look down to see your emails. And no more fishing in your pocket to get your iPhone to snap your kid’s violin recital. Just click a button. Technology becomes seamless.

I agree with both sides. If used judiciously, Glass can make you more in the moment, less likely to steal glances at your smartphone. You are relaxed, free from what the kids call FOMO (fear of missing out). But the opposite can be true, especially if you over-eagerly subscribe to updates from email, Twitter, , The New York Times, and a location-based service that tells me I just passed the site of the 1981 movie My Dinner With André.

The constant dings have turned me into Mr Magoo. I’ve bumped into a parking sign and stumbled on the sidewalk. My friend Paul says that I’ll soon be saying, “OK, Glass. Google ‘Help me, I broke eight ribs.’ ”

Maybe I can put these interruptions to good use. I once read that in ancient Rome, when a general came home victorious, they’d throw him a triumphal parade. But there was always a slave who walked behind the general, whispering in his ear to keep him humble. “You are mortal,” the slave would say.

I’ve always wanted a modern non-slave version of this – a way to remind myself to keep perspective. And Glass seemed the first gadget that would allow me to do that. In the morning, I schedule a series of messages to email myself throughout the day. “You are mortal.” “You are going to die someday.” “Stop being a selfish bastard and think about others.”

I’m waiting in line at the pharmacy when I get a message from myself: “Think about what you are thinking.” I’m stewing about how this woman can’t figure out which way to swipe her debit card. Glass is right: This is not how I want to be using my brain power.

Outsourced conscience verdict: Could be a great business. Whose profits I would donate, of course.

CONCLUSION

Will I wear Glass in real life? That depends a lot on whether everyone else wears it. I’m impressed, but I don’t want to be one of those in the small cadre of Glassholes. I need social acceptance.

It’s hard to predict whether Glass will become a mass phenomenon. But if it doesn’t, something like it will. Perhaps a gadget that looks no more noticeable than a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Technology won’t stop. We are all on a long, slow march toward becoming half-android. Will the good outweigh the bad? Who the hell knows? Well, that’s not entirely true. “OK, Glass, Google ‘Will Glass be good or bad for society?’”

 © AJ Jacobs 2013. A version of this article appeared in American ‘Esquire’

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